Happy Birthday, America! The Death of a Rib Eye, Lessons in Japanese and the Dials of Doom — Jeff's Star Report
My favorite personal moment from Food Network Star, Season 7 was during the Fourth of July celebration ( check out a photo). It was held on a horse farm in the hills of Malibu, and it was hot, windy and packed with a hungry audience. These conditions, coupled with malfunctioning grills and Guy Fieri as a guest judge, led to a very challenging afternoon. The presentation portion was a live demo on a large stage. We had the options to grab props, so naturally, I grabbed a guitar and an American flag that I donned as a cape, a la Apollo Creed from Rocky IV. Needless to say, this was my moment to lay all my cards on the table and get gutsy. I made an excellent pretzel-fried chicken sandwich and gave a highly charged performance, complete with guitar work, singing, knife throwing and stage jumping. It could have backfired, but it was Week 4, and this is a crucial time in the Food Network Star journey. By now you should have your POV on lock and your cooking-under-pressure muscle exercised and definitely be more comfortable on camera. If you do not posses all three of these at this moment, you are potentially doomed.
On that note: Happy birthday, America! It is now time for a proper Fourth of July cookout competition on a bucolic farm in the middle of the Southern California nowhere. It’s time for teams. The finalists use that classic method of team picking: drawing napkins out of a picnic basket. The teams are as follows:
Into the cars and off to their first shopping trip! I just realized that the gang has not yet had the pleasure of turboshopping in a Whole Foods. On my season, we did it for every challenge. We turboshopped so much that it took me six weeks after returning home to finally break the habit of just throwing stuff in my cart. Seriously, my first trip to Whole Foods post-Star, I rang up $695 in 12 1/2 minutes. My wife was peeved and I went to Turboshopping Therapy.
And boy, do they shop with fervor! Jay is making pork loin, Michelle is kebabing shrimp, and Rosa finally decided on that famous American picnic staple, chicken Parm. Dom, despite running around like a headless chicken, is using his head by doing a crowd-pleaser: rib eyes. Rue is cooking a veggie option, and Emilia is laying it all on the line with meat on a stick. The Blue Team is doing Around the World in 80 Curries, which is a risky move, as curry can be very polarizing, especially at a classic Fourth of July picnic. They will definitely be over budget — Arnold purchased 40 pounds of flank steak alone.
They go to check out at the register and guess what? The Blue Team is over budget! They head to the Will Rogers State Historic Park (what a mouthful). Bobby Deen is the guest judge, and just when the Finalists think they can unload their groceries and get to cooking, Bobby announces the old switcheroo. The teams exchange car keys and, in turn, exchange their groceries. Dom is not pleased at all. He is emotionally crushed at the thought of giving up his beautiful steak.
They have one hour to cook, then each team will have three minutes to describe dishes to the audience. Easy enough? Nope! The audience will pick only ONE team's food to try, based solely on their presentation.
They get to cooking, and Dom is still mourning the premature loss of his Uncle Rib Eye. Big Jay inherited Dom's rib eye, and guess what? They are IN LOVE. Michelle grabbed the chicken thighs, and Rosa found some portobellos.
Team Blue has plenty of protein. Sandwich Guy Alex is going to make a mayo-and-ketchup-less chicken sandwich, Arnold is crafting FABU shrimp lollipops, and Eddie is all over the culinary map with Texas pork (?) and a side of Caribbean potato salad. We also learn that while the rest of us spent our youth squished against our siblings in a Dodge Caravan (complete with fake wood paneling) on our way to who knows where to spend a week doing who knows what, Alex was in Tokyo eating katsu sandos on the high-speed bullet train. Regardless, his sandwich is shaping up very nicely, and I would 100 percent love to try it — on or off a bullet train. He just needs to make sure his presentation and story are RELATABLE!
Team Red is chugging along like Peas and Carrots. Rue is making a safe chutney and shrimp while Dom is currently experiencing the Third Stage of Rib Eye Grief (depression), but after some self-exploration, he manages to hit that crucial Fifth Stage of acceptance. He is blending Italian and Asian but wisely decides against bringing his Asian panzanella salad back to the neighborhood. Emilia is perplexed by the bone-in/skin-on chicken thighs, and Dom steps in to debone.
Time's Up/Hands Up! Moving on to the presentations and the return of The Dial of Doom. The audience is in full control for this one, so the pressure is really on.
Red Team is up first. Emilia is successfully selling her little bro story, but unfortunately Rue got a taste of a little “counterclockwise dial of doom action.” Dom is freaking out, and his presentation shows that. He once again runs off the stage, stopping the presentation early and not using all of Team Red’s allotted time. KaDoomed.
Blue Team comes out swinging! Their energy and stage blocking remind me of a mid-’90s O-Town performance at a mall in Jersey. Arnold delivers with warmth and smiles, Sandwich Fanatic Alex uses too much time and way too much Japanese, and eventually Eddie is forced to rush through his presentation.
Team White comes out of the gate strong with Rosa’s promise of a "fireworks display of food. Jay’s rib eye-fueled presentation got dials turnt up.
It is now time for the audience to decide where to dine, and Team White is obviously garnering a lot of attention on account of their fantastic presentation. While Team Red’s line is sparse, the group's food is enjoyed by the judges. Team Blue has a good line of people, and the judges rave about Alex's sandwich but complain about his confusing presentation. They pan Eddie’s two-note pork and tater salad, and in a Food Network Star, Season 11 first, Arnold’s food falters with undercooked shrimp
Team White is in the weeds, BIGTIME. So much, in fact, that their line starts migrating to Team Blue. Which leads me to my next Food Network Star Rule:
Rule No. 1 Million: For large-scale catering challenges, only make stuff that cooks QUICKLY and HOLDS WELL. This way, when a herd of humans storms your station, you are prepared to serve hot, delicious food. This is not the time to try something new or braise veal shanks a la minute.
Rosa made a bad sandwich with improper sandwich ratios, a fatal mistake in my book. Jay made a great steak and okra, and Michelle’s burnt kebabs did not impress Bobby Deen.
Dom on Team Red had a mediocre presentation and fairly good food. Rue’s shrimp and chutney were spot-on, but she neglected to mention her South African POV, again, and Emilia knocked it out of the park with her dial-turning presentation.
Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved
While Team White’s presentation was the crowd favorite, Michelle’s and Rosa’s food were absolutely not. Jay’s presentation and rib eye might have saved the team.
The team with the most tokens is … Blue Team! From the remaining finalists, Jay, Emilia and Rue are safe, and up for elimination are Dom, Rosa and Emilia. Dom really needs to become a great storyteller … overnight. This is very hard to do, but the judges LOVE him, so he will probably get another chance if he does fail again during a presentation. Michelle can connect with the camera consistently, but her food is failing frequently. Rosa … unfortunately is going home. She was a very bright spot in this competition and a wonderful presenter. But there's still hope for her! Check her out, alongside Christina, Matthew and Sita, on Star Salvation, which I'm hosting with Alex Guarnaschelli.